Google to Offer Broadband Users Tools to Monitor ISP Traffic Management

by on June 18, 2008 · 29 comments

The Register reports that Google is developing yet another suite of free tools for broadband users–this time aimed at allowing users to monitor traffic-management/shaping conducted by their ISP.

“We’re trying to develop tools, software tools…that allow people to detect what’s happening with their broadband connections, so they can let [ISPs] know that they’re not happy with what they’re getting – that they think certain services are being tampered with,” Google senior policy director Richard Whitt said this morning during a panel discussion at Santa Clara University, an hour south of San Francisco.

The article provides a short-but-interesting history of how Google’s views on Net Neutrality have evolved in recent years and about the debate inside the company as to whether to governmental prohibition of traffic management/prioritization by enshrining some conception of Net Neutrality in law.  Today, of course, the company has become perhaps the most outspoken corporate defender of Net Neutrality principles.  Google senior policy director Richard Whitt shows no sign of rethinking Google’s commitment to those principles, but suggests that the monitoring tools being developed by Google might fundamentally change the calculus of the debate:

“The forces aligned against us are real. They’ve been there for decades. Their pockets are deep. Their connections are strong with those in Washington,” he said. “Maybe we can turn this into an arms race on the application software side rather a political game.”

As Verizon’s Link Hoewing observes, these tools promise to increase dramatically the transparency of network management practices.  This increased transparency will provide a clearer picture of what ISPs are actually doing, something that is largely a subject of speculation today, while helping to remove the current uncertainty that fuels sometimes wild speculation about the “death of the Internet” and other calamities in a world without Net Neutrality.  Psychologically, transparency may thus remove much of the need for perceived need for Net Neutrality mandates.

But, of course, as defenders of traffic prioritization argue, there will be instances where ISPs “deviate from Net Neutrality principles” by prioritizing certain traffic to enable advanced voice and video services over more intelligent networks.   (Read, for example, George Ou’s post taking issue with aspects of The Register‘s story.)  Of course, some will surely point to such instances as further evidence of the perceived “need” for regulation, but the fact that these practices will be rmore readily apparent to more users than ever before will in fact provide three powerful alternative mechanisms for disciplining ISP traffic management.

First, it will be easier to hold ISPs accountable under their own terms of use–especially with the involvement of citizens’ watchdog groups such as Lauren Weinstein’s “Network Neutrality Squad.”  Clearly, if Google’s planned tools suggest that an ISP is violating the applicable provisions of its terms of use and if that suspicion can be properly confirmed, such a violation should give rise to a breach of contract claim or an unfair-and-deceptive trade practice action.  Increased user awareness of what traffic management actually involves and when it is actually being conducted should also create public pressure on ISPs to specify with greater granularity what they will and will not do.

Second, as demonstrated by the recent “Comcast Kerfuffle,” ISPs could suffer reputational consequences for either (i) violating their terms of use or (ii) simply conducting forms of traffic management that significantly degrade user experiences without any corresponding benefit to users.  The better users understand how ISPs manage their networks, the more likely they will be to appreciate the need for certain kinds of traffic management and the less likely they will be to equate all forms of traffic management with the dystopian scenarios thrown out by the Chicken Littles who insist that the digital firmament is falling and that the “End of the Internet” is upon us if we fail to regulate–and quickly.

Third, Google’s tools will facilitate good, ol’ fashioned self-help.   The more consumers know about traffic management, the more they will be able to find technological means of practices they consider particularly objectionable–the “arms race” referenced by Whitt.

Those of us who defend the ISP’s freedom to manage its network–and, like George Ou, the corresponding freedom of the user to choose prioritization–should never make the mistake of thinking that all prioritization is equally good.  Nor should we let our opposition to coercive Net Neutrality mandates diminish our appreciation for purely voluntary efforts like Google’s monitoring tools.  Surely we can join even those who favor Net Neutrality mandates in agreeing that “Sunlight is the best disinfectant,” as Justice Brandeis famously said.

  • http://www.openmarket.org Alex Harris

    I imagine that the principal upshot of Google’s tools will be to reduce the potency of calls for net neutrality legislation by adding credibility to the argument that users can choose plans with network management practices that work best for them:
    http://www.openmarket.org/2008/06/16/google-creating-net-neutrality-monitoring-tools/

  • http://www.openmarket.org/author/alex-harris/ AlexHarris

    I imagine that the principal upshot of Google’s tools will be to reduce the potency of calls for net neutrality legislation by adding credibility to the argument that users can choose plans with network management practices that work best for them:
    http://www.openmarket.org/2008/06/16/google-cre

  • http://www.LinkedIn.com/in/BerinSzoka Berin Szoka

    Amen, Alex! Competition among broadband providers certainly is perhaps the best possible option.

  • http://linuxworld.com/community/ Don Marti

    Vendors of VPN, VoIP, and game software are likely to include neutrality-testing functionality, so that when a customer calls support to complain that an app is slow, the vendor can say, “that’s not us, it’s the cable company messing with you — can’t help you.”

    Software companies will never miss someone else to send a mad customer to.

  • http://techliberation.com/author/berinszoka/ Berin Szoka

    Amen, Alex! Competition among broadband providers certainly is perhaps the best possible option.

  • dmarti

    Vendors of VPN, VoIP, and game software are likely to include neutrality-testing functionality, so that when a customer calls support to complain that an app is slow, the vendor can say, “that’s not us, it’s the cable company messing with you — can’t help you.”

    Software companies will never miss someone else to send a mad customer to.

  • Pingback: Technology Liberation Front » Archive » Google Endorses Speed-based Prioritization - What About Net Neutrality?

  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    Something is sadly missing from the commentary on Google’s net neutrality stance in general and its tools in particular: an understanding of Google’s motives.

    As things currently stand, Google has high-priority access to ISP networks by virtue of its private network of server farms with low RTT access to ISP networks. Google, in other words, is on the fast lane and the conventional server is on the slow lane.

    So the value of ISP added-value services, such as intra-ISP content caching and mirroring, is to reduce the value of the Google server network. Obviously, they don’t want this to happen.

    I’d like to develop a set of tools to test search neutrality, because I believe Google may be fudging search results in favor of customers who advertise with Google. I have no proof of this, but I’ve learned that wild and irresponsible speculation can be fun from the network neutrality debate. So my tool will track the correlation of ad buys with search ranking.

    And the coolest thing about it is that a negative finding is just as bad for Google’s business as a positive finding.

    Transparency is wonderful.

  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    Something is sadly missing from the commentary on Google’s net neutrality stance in general and its tools in particular: an understanding of Google’s motives.

    As things currently stand, Google has high-priority access to ISP networks by virtue of its private network of server farms with low RTT access to ISP networks. Google, in other words, is on the fast lane and the conventional server is on the slow lane.

    So the value of ISP added-value services, such as intra-ISP content caching and mirroring, is to reduce the value of the Google server network. Obviously, they don’t want this to happen.

    I’d like to develop a set of tools to test search neutrality, because I believe Google may be fudging search results in favor of customers who advertise with Google. I have no proof of this, but I’ve learned that wild and irresponsible speculation can be fun from the network neutrality debate. So my tool will track the correlation of ad buys with search ranking.

    And the coolest thing about it is that a negative finding is just as bad for Google’s business as a positive finding.

    Transparency is wonderful.

  • Concerned One

    I know google is playing favorism with the search results. I'm not talking about the “sponsored links” content either. I discovered they were doing this when I temperarily suspended my campaigns and found that I no longer was my standard number 2 position in the non-sponsored results listing. Turn on my campaign again resulted in returning to the usual number 2 position in the “non-sponsored” results listing. I can understand why my changes would be different in the “sponsored links” lists but trumping my “relevancy” in the non-sponsored list is down right biased and almost like kidnapping or ransoming my info from the world. It just ain't right.

  • Concerned One

    I know google is playing favorism with the search results. I'm not talking about the “sponsored links” content either. I discovered they were doing this when I temperarily suspended my campaigns and found that I no longer was my standard number 2 position in the non-sponsored results listing. Turn on my campaign again resulted in returning to the usual number 2 position in the “non-sponsored” results listing. I can understand why my changes would be different in the “sponsored links” lists but trumping my “relevancy” in the non-sponsored list is down right biased and almost like kidnapping or ransoming my info from the world. It just ain't right.

  • Concerned One

    I know google is playing favorism with the search results. I'm not talking about the “sponsored links” content either. I discovered they were doing this when I temperarily suspended my campaigns and found that I no longer was my standard number 2 position in the non-sponsored results listing. Turn on my campaign again resulted in returning to the usual number 2 position in the “non-sponsored” results listing. I can understand why my changes would be different in the “sponsored links” lists but trumping my “relevancy” in the non-sponsored list is down right biased and almost like kidnapping or ransoming my info from the world. It just ain't right.

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